The Grand Canyon. Is it really, though?
That was our little joke, on the rainy, foggy day we descended upon one of America’s greatest natural treasures. Of course it’s grand, and of course we were being spoiled little brats by deadpanning otherwise. But it was harmless fun, and helped salve any disappointments over the weather’s quite uncooperative conditions.
Though this was my third technical trip to the Grand Canyon, it was still a highly anticipated one. My first trip to the so-called “West Rim,” an area outside the National Park that sits on a Native American reservation, was awe-inspiring at the time — but my subsequent research revealed that was only because I didn’t have anything to compare it to. My second trip was via helicopter, and while it was also an emotionally charged experience, it was a completely air-based adventure in which I never technically touched down in Arizona. This third venture, a pilgrimage to the iconic and most popular South Rim, was slated to blow all others out of the water — or, more accurately, the canyon.
But let’s back up to the prior evening, when we first rolled into the park. Weeks before, we’d snagged a coveted spot at the in-park Mather Campground, a process wrought with hand-wringing for these two first-timer RVers. Our inexperience was quickly sussed out by the park ranger who we eventually reached over the phone to pester with questions and politely asked us if we were new to this whole thing. How’d she guess, I wonder? Was it the panic in our voices as we asked what a pull through site was? Our relentless confusion over what “plugging in” meant? Against all odds, we eventually made our way in the darkness to our allotted spot along the loop. As we drifted to sleep in the pop-up penthouse of our JUCY, we scrolled through the stormy forecast for the next day and started to re-evaluate our plan to rise at 4am in order to catch the first hiking shuttles and be on the South Kaibob Trail at sunrise. Still exhausted from our week in Las Vegas, we made the tough call to swap the hike for extra sleep in the morning.
When we crawled out of the penthouse the next morning, I momentarily cursed the blue skies we were met with for not validating our decision to turn off the alarm. They didn’t last long though — by the time we had breakfast, packed up camp, and congratulated ourselves for surviving our first night of RVing, the sky was already starting to look a little ominous.
By the time we reached the Visitor’s Center, it was pouring, and we ran inside to grab maps, watch a short movie, and make a revised plan for the day. While we’d nixed descending into the canyon, we still had the Rim Trail to tackle.
We started our slow journey from Mather Point, in total a 13 mile trail that follows the lip of the canyon all the way to the far West of the park’s accessible roads. We’d cover just 2.6 miles in our morning of exploring, waylaid as we frequently were by gorgeous vistas, photography opportunities, and attractions along the way.
We’d catch views of the Colorado River, the famed Phantom Ranch, and eons worth of geological magic.
Though it was the middle of the blazing August heat, we found ourselves layering up in all the warmest gear we had. Half-hearted drizzle followed us throughout the day, though had the unexpected benefit, we assumed, of keeping some of the crowds at bay.
The lack of guardrails along some stretches shocked me — in a good way. How this wild and raw corner of America has manged to escape total litigation-proofing is beyond me, and we both mused that we’d probably return someday to see the whole thing from behind plexiglass. For now, it was refreshing and humbling to see it sans man-made barriers.
Yet my curiosity was piqued over a rather morbid statistic and it turns out that yup, an average of twelve people die at the Grand Canyon each year, two or three generally from falling off the edge. Those unlucky few of the five million annual visitors are typically men who are engaging in high risk behavior like hopping from one rock to another for photos. (At five million it’s still not the most visited National Park in the USA — that honor goes to, believe it or not, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, a place I admit I’d never heard of prior to looking up that statistic. Grand Canyon National Park is second.)
When the fog settled into the canyon and our visibility was reduced more or less to nil, we retreated into some of the buildings and attractions along the trail. The Yavapai Point Geology Museum was packed with information on the earth science of the area, while the Kolb Studio held a small but fascinating exhibit on the human history — artists who were inspired be it, honeymooners who mysteriously disappeared in it, entrepreneurs who built a tourism infrastructure around it.
Before hopping on a free shuttle back to the visitor’s center — just one of the extensive network and schedule of them throughout the park — we nosed around the upscale El Tovar hotel and shared our picnic lunch of cheese and crackers on the swinging benches of its wrap-around porch. We both agreed; El Tovar might be the most sought-after accommodation in Grand Canyon National Park, but we wouldn’t have traded our night at the campground for it.
Back at our ride, it was time to tackle the 25 mile Dessert View Drive, a route that would eventually lead us out of the park and towards our next night’s destination of Page, Arizona. With so many endless options to pull over for a viewpoint, we picked and chose at random. The images below are from an unnamed stop that turned out to be my favorite of the day.
Our final destination was Desert View, the final stop before the East Entrance to the park. We pulled into the parking lot and whipped up a dinner of pasta with fresh vegetables right out of the back of the JUCY — such is the magic of this multi-talented vehicle (a tour of which is coming soon!)
When sunset neared, we made our way to the rim one last time. At the time it didn’t feel like we could see much at all — “is that it?” we overheard another traveler asking — though I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of my photos from the day. With editing, they look far better and show much more detail than what we actually saw with our eyes, but you won’t find me complaining about an unexpectedly successful session of shooting.
We were sad to leave the Grand Canyon a mere twenty-four hours after arriving. According to park surveys, our visit was on the long side — the typical stay lasts five to seven hours. Still, we could have easily dedicated our entire trip to the Canyon. At minimum, I wish we’d had an extra day to tackle one of the below-the-rim hikes, hang around the campground a bit, check out some of the park ranger programs, and rent a bike for a bit of cycling.
However, there’s no question I’ll be back. In my extensive research for the trip, I became totally enamored with the idea of completing the strenuous rim to rim hike between the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon. It’s officially on the bucket list now. And that means that in this big world full of wonders I’ve yet to see, I’ll be returning to this particular one for a fourth time, at least. Because yes — it really is quite grand.
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. — Edward Abbey
Stay tuned for day our next stop — Lake Powell! Have you been to the Grand Canyon?
Many thanks to JUCY for our sweet ride! As always, you receive my honest thoughts, full opinions and poorly written jokes regardless of who is footing the bill.